The Penn State scandal is not exclusively about the climate created by a consistently successful, highly lucrative NCAA Division I football program.
While the football tail has wagged the academic dog for decades now, there is much more to it than that. This catastrophe is about all institutions’ use of hyperbolic gibberish in vain-glorious efforts to manipulate the public’s preferences.
The public relations world calls it “branding.”
For people who raise livestock, branding is proof of ownership, a way to make it less likely that people will steal the ranchers’ animals.
That kind of branding is about property rights, one of the fundamental principles on which the United States was founded.
In the urban jungle, branding is laying claim to a level of excellence, efficacy, beauty, convenience or reliability that is unparalleled by any other product or service in its class.
Principles aren’t necessarily mentioned or even desired.
The brand Penn State’s football program tried to sell was one of superiority on and off the gridiron. In addition to winning football games, Head Coach Joe Paterno prided himself on having one of the highest graduation rates for a Division I football program in the country.
However, the cyberspace trail of Vicky Triponey, former head of student affairs, not only pierces that veneer of respectability. It blasts that veneer into shards that stick in the skin like thorns in the Nittany Lions’ paws.
She had the audacity to believe that Paterno’s student-athletes should be disciplined as other students are disciplined, according to the institutional policy, when they misbehave.
Instead of thanking her for her concern and backing her, the institution’s power whores labeled her a troublemaker.
The intimidation took a profoundly sexist turn. On a radio program, Paterno said Triponey couldn’t possibly know how to handle students “because she didn’t have kids.”
During an annual job performance evaluation, President Graham Spanier said she was “confrontational” and “aggressive.”
Those words are interpreted as “forthright” and “assertive” when applied to a man, but they’re the kiss of death for a professional woman.
With all the top brass against her, Triponey was pressured into resigning.
After all, if the Penn State brain trust had to choose between supporting Triponey or protecting the “brand,” Triponey would have to go.
Paterno, who accused Triponey of being unqualified to handle students “because she didn’t have kids,” had children and grandchildren of his own, but he failed to protect the kids who were victimized by Jerry Sandusky.
If you think that this could not happen in your university, your religious denomination, your business office or your government agency, you are woefully naïve. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The wave of evil washes all our institutions alike.”
The cover-up might not be intended to hide an evil as horrific as child rape. Nonetheless, the long-term ramifications will be devastating.
Penn State loyalists may keep Paterno’s statue erect as long as they like, but no pressure washer in existence will wash the slime off that structure.
Some observers, even some sports fans who love college football, are calling for the NCAA to impose the “death penalty” and shut down the football program for a period of time.
The NCAA, which itself is no stranger to bureaucratic inertia and internecine turf wars, uses a particular phrase in disciplining member institutions. That phrase has become as cliché as any other sports bromide.
They call it “lack of institutional control.”
Try branding that.